Home Health and Safety – Common Harmful Products

I was going to do one article on safety in the home in relation to maintenance but as I started my research it became obvious to me that this was a bigger subject than I envisaged. I have decided therefore to split it up into several articles. 

This article is on the various products that we have lying about the house and use in the maintenance of our house, garden, car etc. In the working environment we must comply with a regulation called the Control of Substances Harmful to Health or COSHH. This tells us what the hazard of the product is, how it may affect us, what precautions we should take when using it and the first aid / medical measures requirements if needed. In the domestic environment COSHH does not apply however the products still cause us harm, they have not changed. The relevant symbols and information are still usually printed on the packaging or container, it is obviously good practice to read this information before using any product.

So, to start, let us look at what the description may tell us.
  • There will normally be at least one symbol, this tells us what the main hazard of the product is.
  • Contents, which will list the various substances found within the product.
  • How to use the product, what PPE is required, where to use, how to store and how to dispose.
  • First aid or medical information.

You would be surprised at the amount of hazardous or potentially hazardous products we use in the domestic situation. The unfortunate thing is that we tend to hang on to them, don't store them properly or securely, often change the container, lose the instructions. There are a few basic rules when dealing with hazardous products that we should always follow, this will keep us, the children, and the pets healthy and safe and potentially save lives.

  1. Check the products you use and replace with a less harmful product where possible.
  2. Store in a child and animal safe place and as recommended by the product manufacturer.
  3. Keep in the original container or packaging.
  4. Only keep products that you use, dispose of the rest by the recommended means.
  5. Read and understand all the information on the product label especially the first aid measures, you do not want to wait until they are needed before reading them.
  6. Ensure that everything required for first aid measures is available before using the product such as an eye wash available, again you do not want to be trying to drive, half blind, to the chemist to buy some!
  7. Only use the products as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
  8. Never mix products.

I am now going to run through the most common types of products used and found in the and around the house and highlight the main hazards for them. Not all products will be hazardous, for most uses, there are nonhazardous substitutes available.


Oil-based paints (including stains) are regulated due to their flammability and the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as xylene and toluene. Paints (both water-based and oil-based) and stains may contain certain metallic pigments or fortifiers and are regulated as a hazardous waste.

Traditional paints and many related products, such as paint thinner or stripper, give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids, VOCs include a variety of chemicals that may include toluene, xylene, ethyl acetate, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and glycol. Volatile organic compounds in paints can cause headaches, eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue.

Old lead-based paints, banned in the UK in 1992, may still be found lying about, these are highly toxic and can be fatal if swallowed.

Bitumen paint may cause lung damage if swallowed, repeated exposure may cause skin dryness or cracking, and inhaled vapor may cause drowsiness and dizziness.

Dangers of inhaling spray paint

Short term health effects can include irritation contact dermatitis, burns to the skin and eyes, vomiting and diarrhea, irritation to the nose, throat and lungs, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue.

Paint and varnish strippers

In addition to skin and eye irritation, paint stripper chemicals can cause headaches, drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, and loss of coordination. Some of the chemicals used have also been linked cancer, reproductive problems and damage to the kidney, liver, and brain. Some paint stripping chemicals are extremely flammable.


What Are Solvents? Many household products contain solvents. A solvent is a substance that dissolves something else. An example is turpentine, which dissolves paint and grease. Water is the most common solvent, but it is not hazardous as are other solvents. Examples of solvents are water, milk, Toluene, Acetone, ethanol, Glycerol, Petroleum, and Ether. Different solvents can affect your health in different ways. Some of the short-term effects are irritation of the eyes, lungs and skin, headaches, nausea, dizziness, or light-headedness. Some of these effects may also increase your risk of having an accident.


Most household glues are not poisonous. However, household glue poisoning can occur when someone breathes in glue fumes on purpose to get high. Industrial-strength glue is the most dangerous. Exposure to the chemicals in glue can lead to an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). In some cases, the abnormal rhythms can lead to fatal heart failure. This is known as sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS), and it can occur from just one attempt.


All types of grout can be dangerous. Cement grout is particularly dangerous, especially if it contains silica. Domestic use however does not normally expose you to the levels to cause harm. Prolonged or repeated exposure to the product, such as that of contractors who work with it all the time, can cause skin irritation, and issues with breathing caused by the silica found in cement-based grouts.


Cement is highly toxic, prompting eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation, and contains calcium oxide, corrosive to human tissue, and chromium, which can prompt severe allergic reactions. Then there's silica. Crystalline silica is found in materials such as concrete, masonry and rock. When these materials are made into a fine dust and suspended in the air, breathing in these fine particles can produce lung damage. Silicosis can be totally disabling and may lead to death.


Plaster dust can cause irritation to the respiratory system, which in some cases may lead to occupational asthma. Domestic use however does not normally expose you to the levels to cause harm. The long-term health effects of regularly inhaling plaster dusts during mixing are unclear at present but likely to include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Bleach / Cleaning chemicals

Bleach is very irritating and corrosive to the skin, lungs, and eyes. As well, it has been known to burn human tissue internally or externally. On top of this it may cause skin rash, extreme headaches, migraines, muscle weakness, abdominal discomfort, esophageal perforation, nausea and vomiting.

Many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause headaches and other health problems, including cancer. Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Other harmful ingredients include ammonia and bleach.

Laundry detergent

Your fabric softener may contain phthalates, which disperse the scent; synthetic musk’s such as galaxolide, which accumulate in the body; and much more. Fragrance mixes can cause allergies, skin irritations such as dermatitis, difficulty breathing, headache, lightheadedness and fatigue. Laundry detergent residue left in your clothes might irritate your skin the next time you wear those clothes.

Dishwasher tablets / salt

If a child was to mistake a dishwasher or washing machine capsule or tablet for a sweet it could cause serious damage. Cleaning products are extremely alkaline and can burn the skin fast. If a child has put a dishwasher tablet in their mouth it is important to remove it and rinse the product away as quickly as you can. Dishwashing detergent contains ingredients that protect that metal in your dishwasher, or that are strong enough to break down food particles.

Dishwasher salt is sodium chloride, the same chemical that makes up table and sea salts. The ingestion of hypertonic solutions can cause fatal of body electrolyte and fluid balance particularly in the young and the elderly. Less than a tablespoon of salt may severely poison an infant and sometimes prove fatal.

Washing up liquid

Washing up liquid is not carcinogenic, corrosive, or toxic, and swallowing it is probably going to result in nothing more than an upset stomach and some extra time in the toilet. It is an irritant though, and can cause "serious eye damage.

Cooking oils

A high intake of trans fats is associated with all sorts of chronic diseases, including heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. If a product lists hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, it likely contains trans fats. For optimal health, avoid these products.

Common cooking oils that contain more of the “better-for-you” fats and less saturated fat include Olive, Peanut, Sunflower. Avoid anything that's "Partially Hydrogenated" This can be anything, like partially hydrogenated vegetable, palm oil and soybean oil. This oil is generally found in processed foods and contains a high ratio of saturated fat.

Weed killer.

People who breathed in spray mist from products containing glyphosate felt irritation in their nose and throat. Swallowing products with glyphosate can cause increased saliva, burns in the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Fatalities have been reported in cases of intentional ingestion.

Garden feed

Fertilizer can be irritating if it gets into your eyes, nose, or mouth. It can cause stomach upset if swallowed. Usually, there are no other problems with the types of fertilizers sold for home use. BUT – and this is a big "but" – some fertilizer products also contain weed killers and insecticides.

Insecticides / Pesticides

Many insecticides can cause poisoning after being swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Symptoms may include eye tearing, coughing, heart problems, and breathing difficulties. Pesticides can cause short-term adverse health effects, called acute effects, as well as chronic adverse effects that can occur months or years after exposure. Examples of acute health effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea.

Rodent poisons

Many chemicals used to kill rodents are called anticoagulants. These chemicals cause uncontrolled bleeding by affecting a rodent's ability to form blood clots. Symptoms may not be visible for up to five days after exposure. If left untreated, poisoning can lead to death. Pesticides to kill mice, rats, and other rodents can also harm humans (and pets). Anticoagulant rodenticides are often used. These can cause bleeding if they are eaten on a regular basis (for example, a child nibbling at a bait station).


Creosote is a coal tar product, which contains varying amounts of mutagenic and carcinogenic substances. Coal tar products including Creosote are classified as potential human carcinogens.

Exposure to small amounts of creosote over time by direct skin contact or by contact with creosote vapors, may cause blistering, peeling, or reddening of the skin, damage to the eyes with increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Oils and grease

Motor oil can be very harmful if swallowed and aspirated into the lungs. Patients with respiratory symptoms after ingesting motor oil need to get medical help. Used motor oil has contaminants, but a one-time exposure is unlikely to cause toxicity. Frequent and prolonged contact with used engine oil may cause dermatitis and other skin disorders, including skin cancer. 

Contact with some types of hydraulic fluids can irritate your skin or eyes, and consuming certain types of hydraulic fluids can cause pneumonia, intestinal bleeding, or death in humans. Swallowing or inhaling certain types of hydraulic fluids has caused nerve damage in animals.

Prolonged contact with oils and greases can cause a range of skin problems, such as: rashes, dermatitis and even skin cancer.

Brake fluid / Steering fluid / Anti-Freeze

Even though clean motor oil, automatic trans fluid, gear oil and power steering fluid are relatively harmless, coolant, washer fluid and brake fluid can do all sorts of damage to the human nervous system, kidney, and liver.

Brake fluids often contain the toxic alcohol diethylene glycol (DEG), if swallowed, DEG can be very dangerous, even fatal, if patients do not receive prompt medical care.

Conventional antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, which is very poisonous to people and animals. However, antifreeze, even in the smallest amounts, can have a very harmful and often fatal effect on your pet. A single teaspoon will kill a cat and a tablespoonful will kill a 10-pound dog. Ethylene glycol is poisonous if ingested. It only takes a small amount of antifreeze to poison the human body and cause life-threatening complications.

Central heating inhibitors Corrosion and Scale Inhibitor for Central Heating Systems. May cause skin and eye irritation. Ingestion may cause irritation of the gastrointestinal tract.

Drain cleanersDrain cleaners contain very dangerous chemicals that can be harmful to your health if you swallow them, inhale them, or if they come in contact with your skin and eyes. The chemicals used in drain un-blockers, especially the cheaper ranges, are highly toxic and bad for the environment. Inhaling the fumes is unhealthy and cause irritation to your nose, eyes, or throat. 

Drain cleaner is caustic, meaning it will eat away at your pipes, even the tougher types. If your home uses plastic pipes, use the solution sparingly, if at all. It can even eat away at metal pipes.